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Americans, as a culture, are terrible at learning from other's mistakes.

I wonder-- and I'm sure a lot of others do, too-- why North Carolina didn't look at Wisconsin and Michigan before the 2012 election, as examples of why you should not allow Republicans to control all levers of your government.

Why in 2009, Virginia ignored (or downplayed) Bob McDonnell's history, failing to consider that such a strong propensity to anti-gay and anti-woman sentiment might be a little hard to "grow out of", before they elected him governor.

Why too many of us will turn a blind eye to the example of countries all over the world whose populations grow tired of uncertainty, and look for a strongman to solve all their problems, throwing all caution and better judgment to the wind for a little temporary moral clarity... when history has shown that never ends well.

Why ordinary Americans, over and over again, fall for the siren song of "somebody new" at election time, without considering whether the new person will actually be beneficial for their interests. Until after the election and it's too late, of course.

The answer, I believe, is in our perfectly American fatal flaw: we simply do not believe in it, unless we've lived it.
Going beyond a healthy "trust but verify" philosophy, we believe that deep understanding can only come from firsthand experience.

On DailyKos we speak often of people who lack empathy. I make the case that a lot of Americans actually distrust empathy as unreliable compared to lived, shared experience. Learning the hard way has more credibility than learning others' example.

This is why we're still not comfortable with out-and-proud atheists as our representatives, because the majority of Americans profess to believe in God; and believe that you need a deity or higher power to keep you moral. It's why we still feel much of the time that a politician who has a family is better at connecting with familied voters; and why we only started warming up to unmarried politicians after we'd elected a few. Tried them out on firsthand experience, if you will.

Which brings me to an insight I've gleaned from a recent Salon article on immigration.
One of our biggest goals as progressives is to strengthen unions, right? Well... there's a big mental block we need to remove, in order to actually be effective at that. So that we're learning from our past mistakes... and do not have to experience them, firsthand, yet again.


The Salon article opened my eyes to a lot of missing historical context.

Immediately after World War I, America was turning inward. Weary of foreign war, skittish about radical ideas such as communism and anarchism, and increasingly enamored of eugenics, Americans embraced nativism full-throttle; culminating in the passage of the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the even stronger Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. The 1921 law limited immigrants by establishing quotas based on country of birth, capping them at three percent of the total number of immigrants from each country as recorded in the 1910 census. However, the Emergency Quota Act was fairly loose, containing many exceptions; including those for immigrants from the Western hemisphere, those whose countries had bilateral immigration agreements with the United States (Mexico may have fallen into both of these categories, even before the bracero program; which started in the 1940s).

The Johnson-Reed Act was a different story. By tightening the quota from three down to two percent, calculating the percentage based on the whole of the American population, and moving the census year with which to base calculations from 1910 back to 1890; Johnson-Reed gave a steroid injection to the law passed three years prior, dramatically slowing down the pipeline of new arrivals. Furthermore, it banned all Asians from becoming naturalized citizens, including those which had been previously allowed under the 1921 law. Overall, Johnson-Reed had the effect of proportionally increasing immigration of peoples from the British Isles and Western Europe (i.e., the "whiter" peoples) and limiting immigration from everywhere else (such as, of course, Jews and people of color). America, like most of the world at that time, had fallen for the ideal of racial purity.

Why did America become so race-conscious? Why could, at times, their racialism rival that of Nazi Germany's?

Economics, of course. Lofty proclamations about race almost always conceal a more practical concern: making a living. And the huge influx of foreigners that lasted from the 1880s till about 1915 meant only one thing for American-born workers: lower wages. The newer the immigrant, the lower the wage they were willing to accept-- and the more their bosses were willing to exploit them.
As a result, during the Gilded Age when workers attempted to unionize, almost every try was fruitless. There just wasn't enough solidarity, not enough cooperation; for the parties involved were too much at odds with each other. On the part of the native-borns, too much competition with and resentment for the "job-stealing" new arrivals; and too much subservience to the employers, borne of fear of deportation, on the part of the immigrants. (Hmmm... that sounds very familiar.)

Their employers, taking the long view and confident that these dynamics would prevent a serious challenge to their power and profits, were only too happy to foment this class and race rivalry. This is well known. But less well known is that many union leaders were of like mind:

{Samuel} Gompers, the founder of what became today’s AFL-CIO, was so appalled by the immigrants pouring into the United States in the late 19th century, and so convinced that they were undermining wages for his union members, that he penned an anti-Asian pamphlet entitled “Meat vs. Rice: American Manhood Against Coolieism: Which Shall Survive?”

“Caucasians are not going to let their standard of living be destroyed by Negroes, Chinamen, Japs or any others,” Gompers fulminated on another occasion, expanding his race-baiting from Asians to black people.

Almost all of the AFL family of unions were hostile to African Americans-- to say nothing of immigrants. Integration came through the industrial unions, especially the CIO. It would be mid-century, and primarily outside the South, before the other unions became as committed to racial and cultural integration as the CIO.
By 1970, foreign-born Americans made up 4.7 percent of the population, an all-time low. Their total number was 9.7 million, the fewest since 1890.
This detail was truly shocking for me to take in. Less than 5 percent of America's population foreign-born in 1970? Johnson-Reed had worked well indeed... too well, for those of us who'd always known our society as multicultural, and prefer it that way.

No wonder there is such call from the anti-immigrationists to just shut up and assimilate, and "just speak English already"... because at that time, we did. The trend towards assimilation would only stop and reverse when President Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965; but it took several decades after that to get to where we are now... 13 percent foreign born population, the highest percentage since 1920; just before the immigration-curbing laws passed.
There may have been plenty of Americans of foreign descent, but after several generations of being away from their mother country, they more than likely no longer engaged in its customs or spoke its language. For all appearances, America did seem a more or less homogeneous culture, especially compared to today.

(It explains why food like this was considered exotic to mid-century palates.)

It certainly explains why Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity were able to so easily forget the brutal anti-Irish prejudice their parents, grandparents, and extended family went through. (and the same for Jay Severin and his Italian ancestors, and Michael Weiner/Savage his Jewish ones) Because in their minds, they had been around long enough to melt into the great American pot; and therefore could "pass" as Anglo-Saxon and forget their roots.
Right-wing, pompous men like that probably wouldn't do something so quaint as to try to hold onto parts of what they might have considered a dead language, an outdated culture... things that could only slow down their career advancement. Certainly it wouldn't do to live in a majority Irish/Italian/German/etc. neighborhood. That would show they hadn't made it! This is America, land of self-reinvention; and at the end of the day it's best to let go of the past. Choose your own firsthand experience, especially if you have the money and power to do so.


But for unionization, American citizenship was even more important than race. Only after the majority of foreign-born workers had been in the United States long enough to become citizens-- and could not be replaced by new immigrants-- did workers find the solidarity and group cohesion they needed to successfully unionize. In fact, the rate of immigration has an almost perfect inverse relationship with the rate of union membership:

It’s no coincidence that America’s economic inequality also reached its all-time low around that time. Economist Stanley Lebergott concluded that cutting off immigration had resulted in higher wages, especially for low-skill workers. Advances in productivity could not account for all the wage gains since the 1920s, Lebergott wrote in his 1964 book “Manpower and Economic Growth: The American Record Since 1800.” “Instead we find that halting the flow of millions of migrants… offers a much more reasonable explanation.
In their book, “Migration and the International Labor Market, 1850-1939,” T.J. Hatton and Jeffrey G. Williamson estimated that without the wave of Southern and Eastern European immigration that began in 1870, “the real wage would have been about 9 percent higher.”

Which brings me back to the theme of this diary. Most Americans believe that diversity and cosmopolitanism go hand-in-hand with rising inequality, and that there is no way out of that. Why? Because we have never personally lived a reality in which we had both high diversity and lower inequality.

Never mind that our Gilded Age inequality was due to a choice on the part of employers to exploit vulnerable immigrant laborers. Never mind that financialization-- also a choice, by "job creators"-- is the number one reason for our soaring inequality today, NOT immigrants or immigration themselves.
Because inequality causes so much misery every day, so much learned helplessness, that we stop caring about the true root cause of it before long. All we want is for the misery to stop, by any means necessary. We start to follow in the footsteps of our forebears, who also blamed the wrong people for their exploitation.

Because according to Americans' firsthand experience between 1924 and 1965, curbing immigration and homogenizing race and culture worked. It gave us bigger paychecks and more control of our work destinies. Even more important, it gave us a sense of shared identity. We had just enough differences to give us flavor and texture, middle-class white Americans tell themselves with nostalgia. Not the serious differences, as with foreign languages or religions or sharply divergent core values. We had the good kind of differences. The manageable kind.

Tea Partiers, in their own minds, are being rational and wise: they're pushing for a tried-and-true, historically proven method of safeguarding our standard of living. Therefore, they can actually say, with a straight face, that they're trying to help the rest of us.


I have wondered whether they were right at times... whether you really couldn't be too diverse a society if you wanted more socioeconomic opportunity. Look at how homogeneous Scandinavia is, a lot of us would say; and that's why their social safety net is so strong. (Only their "homogeneity" actually turned out not to be true.)
Are humans really not emotionally equipped to handle too much pluralism? How many times has freely chosen love been outweighed by the cold calculation of societal approval?

But to believe that is to believe that human beings are not up to the task of growing and evolving. It is a cop-out, an excuse to not your imagination.

Now, the backlash we will face is real. Regular people are evolving, but often it seems that too many of America's most powerful people really aren't up to the task of diversity. Many exploitative employers and politicians would rather we not use our imaginations. They will point to our lack of firsthand experience in having it both ways-- high diversity and low inequality-- and use it as evidence we are pie-in-the-sky dreamers. Using all the advantages that come from privilege, they will attempt to wear us down until we are emotionally and financially exhausted-- and therefore more likely to heed their cynical advice and seek comfort at all costs.

But maybe we do have some firsthand experience to work with after all. For the appeal to realism and practicality-- and prior firsthand experience-- has been long used against our efforts to make our society evolve. And people in worse situations than us have fought and prevailed:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." §
Martin Luther King Jr. saw right through this attempt to paint a blinkered, jaundiced present as "reality".  The fact is that growth and change IS reality. The one guarantee for humanity is that we will change. And so, in following a vision that may never have been precisely realized before, we are being more in tune with how people really are, than anyone who believes we're better off static.

At the very least, we now have much better Chinese food. Farewell, "Honorable Chinese Dinner".

UPDATE: Gee thanks! I appreciate the rescue. Hope you have a good weekend!

Originally posted to The Montrose Tractatus on Sat Aug 02, 2014 at 10:03 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Great diary. (9+ / 0-)

    Fascinating how the perception of our economic prosperity of the mid-20th century changes depending on where one starts from. One of the most thought-provoking diaries I've read in quite some time.

  •  As a lover of history I loved this diary! (6+ / 0-)

    Also, I wanted to note, that if you look at the US economy over the long term, you'll see an interesting thing...

    From 10 to 20 years after a wave of immigration (think German, Polish, Irish, Vietnamese) you'll see that the US economy had a slow but steady rise.

    Those immigrants which come here? They start a lot of small businesses. Those businesses pump money into local economies. Lots of them all at the same time over a period of 3 to 10 years? They juice up the national economy.

    We could all learn a lot about how to deal with modern issues by reading a lot more History.

    "I like paying taxes...with them, I buy Civilization"

    by Angie in WA State on Sat Aug 02, 2014 at 02:28:10 PM PDT

  •  White, racist pre-civil rights era (9+ / 0-)

    Democrats (today's republicans) were just fine with social welfare programs. It wasn't until they realized that blacks were going to get help too that they bolted, and began despising those same programs.

    You're right - humans in general have a real tough time with empathy, especially when that other person really looks different. Different cultures, languages,'s hard to understand that under all of that people are basically the same.

    Many religions preach that some are more deserving than others, that if you do A and B you'll get C. The result is the belief that those in misery did something to put themselves there. Sometimes even the most charitable, in spite of their generosity, continue to look down on the less fortunate as less-than. The lack of compassion is only exacerbated when the "less-than" doesn't look like you do.

    In my faith, Nichiren Buddhism, we are all equals possessed with the same potential. We also understand that life is suffering, and no person on this planet does not suffer. We all do. When you understand that, compassion is much easier.

    We also believe that the path to happiness is through helping others alleviate their suffering. We become stronger and more fortunate by helping others to overcome problems.

    In the US, I think that we are an incredibly self-centered country. I never understand what is so hard about looking to other countries that do things well, and simply do what they do! I mean, how hard is that?? But, then I think of someone who is stubborn and arrogant, and always must do something himself with no help. That's American. Very macho. Do it yourself! Don't be a baby! Man up!

    This is not the right way to build a society. We are not islands; humans need each other. We were never meant to exist apart, watching TV in our lonely subdivisions. You worry about your own problems so much that you don't have the time or energy to worry about anything else. We are too blind to see that our problems will improve if we can make the decision to help each other.

    Humans try to alleviate suffering with more suffering. When you lack empathy, you lack compassion. When you lack compassion, you suffer. And you suffer alone. That is what ails our society.

    Thanks for the diary - very provocative!

    Mediocrity cannot know excellence ~ Sherlock Holmes

    by La Gitane on Sat Aug 02, 2014 at 03:13:31 PM PDT

  •  I can think of a very good reason why somebody new (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    sounds attractive: somebody old sucks.

    There is an old saying "Better the devil you know", but, applied to politics, it means accepting a life of permanent insignificance and continually bad public "servants".

    LG: You know what? You got spunk. MR: Well, Yes... LG: I hate spunk!

    by dinotrac on Sat Aug 02, 2014 at 06:13:39 PM PDT

  •  Very nicely done (0+ / 0-)

    In the case of people coming from Central America, there is another recent historical strain as well.  We financed strongmen who killed 100s of thousands, perhaps more, and we labeled the people who fled "economic migrants" and put their name on a list for pickup and popped them onto airplanes back to where they came.  Where many of them died.  And people were really OK with this.  Most still are.

    I don't think we have ever been willing to recognize refugee status without granting admission.  Not on our own borders. Because no politician wants refugee camps, which are expensive and embarrassing and hard to resolve away.  But when I see these little kids coming and listen to the right, and the left, talk about "fair process" I think -- OK, a country is a nasty little club, and it is actually true on some levels that it's all rich clubs and poor clubs.  You can bend some, but America no longer has a whole continent to steal or people to enslave, and we're starting down the road to social democracy, so membership cards are -- as you say in this diary, slightly differently -- important.  Diverse or not, people say no to expanding the club for many reasons, on the left and right, and it's a political process you can lose.

    What is going on now  -- near as I can tell from way out in the cheap seats -- is that we are at risk of deporting thousands of refugee children to probable death because we (a) have a history of a reality blind immigration system, (b) have huge momentum behind that immigration system, and (c) are unwilling to recognize that not all refugees will be allowed entry, but even if you are not willing to grant citizenship or landed status, you do not send people back to die.  So while I am all for letting people in, myself (I happen to think birthright lotteries are vile)....I don't necessarily think that will happen.  I am more concerned that we will go the extra step of sending people back to die so we are not inconvenienced by the evidence of their lives.

    ...j'ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.

    by jessical on Sun Aug 03, 2014 at 05:51:29 AM PDT

  •  Great diary! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Kentucky DeanDemocrat
    The trend towards assimilation would only stop and reverse when President Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965; but it took several decades after that to get to where we are now... 13 percent foreign born population, the highest percentage since 1920; just before the immigration-curbing laws passed.
    Good for LBJ! He was right to sign that 1965 Act.

    Their cause must be our cause too. Because it's not just Negroes, but really it's all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome. -- Lyndon B. Johnson

    by AllTheWayWithLBJ85 on Sun Aug 03, 2014 at 08:33:39 AM PDT

  •  The Tragic Flaw goes much deeper than even (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Kentucky DeanDemocrat

    what your diary covered (which was great btw).

    It afflicts our society on many levels.

    "It were a thousand times better for the land if all Witches, but especially the blessing Witch, might suffer death." qtd by Ehrenreich & English. For Her Own Good, Two Centuries of Expert's Advice to Women pp 40

    by GreenMother on Sun Aug 03, 2014 at 09:13:12 AM PDT

  •  Scandinavian homogeniety (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Was how their welfare states were created in the first place, not why they still work now.

  •  Oh, there is a war on the 99%. (0+ / 0-)

    It's both real and more-or-less conscious, at least at the highest levels.

    Supple and turbulent, a ring of men/ Shall chant in orgy on a summer morn...

    by karmsy on Mon Aug 04, 2014 at 08:25:32 AM PDT

  •  May be apropos of nothing (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Lucy Montrose

    But I wonder how many of you know the story of the 1890 census.

    What happened to that record has truly proved a major inconvenience to genealogists such as myself, but the story has always troubled me in another way. I keep running across references to conspiracies surrounding the fire and the census. There's also the question of why the decision to completely obliterate the remaining salvageable records.

    I only bring this up because...

    The Johnson-Reed Act was a different story. By tightening the quota from three down to two percent, calculating the percentage based on the whole of the American population, and moving the census year with which to base calculations from 1910 back to 1890; Johnson-Reed gave a steroid injection to the law passed three years prior, dramatically slowing down the pipeline of new arrivals.
    If Johnson Reed wasn't passed until 1924, then the 1890 census had already been declared destroyed for all intents and purposes.

    Interesting to say the least.

    Meddle not in the affairs of dragons... for thou art crunchy and good with ketchup.

    by Pariah Dog on Mon Aug 04, 2014 at 10:14:12 AM PDT

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